What are you looking for in pieces of new piano music? Nanette Solomon



Nanette Kaplan Solomon

When choosing new works to program and perform, I first and foremost look for something that I can relate to on physical, emotional, and intellectual levels. I do not shy away from works that are virtuosic and technically demanding, as long as they are accessible to an audience, and I can get an overall feeling for the shape of the work on a first or second read-through. I particularly enjoy works that explore all of the sonorous resources of the piano, and create a balance between dramatic, lyrical, and percussive elements. I am attracted to a wide variety of piano textures ranging from lean and contrapuntal, static “Impressionistic” and coloristic sonorities, to rhythmically energetic and percussive writing. I like the use of minimalistic patterns in a piece of music, but not when it becomes the entire composition. Someone once sent me a score with literally 100 pages of the same motivic cell: I did not learn it! While I have played works that use some extended “inside the piano” techniques, I prefer when those techniques are used as special effects, rather than as the basic modus operandi of the work.

In reflecting on the music I have programmed in the past few years, as well as the music I chose for my two compilation CDs of contemporary music by women—Character Sketches (Leonarda 334), and Sunbursts (Leonarda 345)—I guess I would say that my tastes gravitate toward the neo-Romantic and post-modern. From the lush harmonies in works like Judith Lang Zaimont‘s Calendar Collection, to the dramatic and powerful syncopated rhythms in Emma Lou Diemer‘s Fantasy for Piano, or the unabashedly tonal writing in Stefania de Kenessey‘s Sunburst and Vivian Adelberg Rudow‘s Rebecca’s Suite. All of these works are viscerally rewarding to the performer as well as aurally stimulating for the listener.

I am also attracted, when choosing music, to works that have a link to the past, or that re-interpret a previous model, for instance Diane Thome‘s Pianismus, which takes us on a journey through 19th and 20th century piano sonorities (with some non-specific allusions to Brahms and Copland), Sheila Silver‘s Fantasy quasi variation based on the Copland Piano Variations which is a lyrical sensuous “take” on Copland’s landmark work, Ruth Schonthal‘s In homage of . . .24 Preludes, which draws on references to Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Hindemith and Bartók, or Jane Brockman‘s Character Sketches, which alludes to Mussorgsky‘s Boris Godunov (specifically) and textures of Debussy and Schoenberg (generally).

Last year, I heard and then immediately learned John Corigliano‘s Fantasia on an Ostinato, which treats the theme from the second movement of Beethoven‘s 7th Symphony to minimalistic and dissonant “riffs.” Similarly, I was very intrigued by the second movement of Judith Lang Zaimont’s Sonata for Piano, which is a meditation and fantasy on the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. Being the eclectic that I am, I also thoroughly enjoy works that fuse jazz or blues elements into music, such as the “contemporary” rags of William Bolcom or Judith Lang Zaimont, and the blues movement of George Rochberg‘s Carnival Music, as well as the bluesy, folk elements found in Victoria Bond’s Sandburg Suite. In addition, I enjoy the incorporation of diverse rhythms, such as the African drumming patterns used by Tania León in Momentum, or the percussive sonorities and tango rhythms used by Emma Lou Diemer in the third movement of her Sonata No. 3.

Composers and performers are both, above all, communicators. That said, the ultimate litmus test for a piece of music is its affective quality. I must be moved in some way in order to effectively convey an expressive message to an audience.